In “Far North,” a Chilling Look at a Dystopian Future

It seems to be part of the human condition that, along with wondering about our own mortality, we inevitably think about the end of the world, or the end of time, as well. When will it come? What will it look like? What will be left? Who will be to blame?

Vivid explorations of these questions, whether in movies or in books, have existed for years and continue to fascinate. Most, if not all, of these types of stories could be described as “dystopian,” and Marcel Theroux’s 2009 novel, Far North, is no different in that sense. However, he does approach these questions from a unique angle.

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Set in Siberia, we find one single, solitary survivor living in what was formerly a city settled by Quakers. The survivor, named “Makepeace,” is the sheriff of this place, and continues to patrol it, despite no one else living there. Makepeace’s parents, along with other Quakers and peace-seeking people, had left the modern world behind years ago, and moved as a group to this isolated land in Siberia, where they went about setting up a new kind of society.

This worked well for some time, and Makepeace, having known no other way of living or being, might never have known the violent, materialistic world outside had it not come knocking at their door. But knock it did, as people in more modern cities across the globe continued to consume more than they needed, driven to excess by greed and fear. The earth’s resources were plundered and disrespected, and the consequences were dire. When both crops and economies began to fail, hoards of desperate, hungry people traveled to settlements like this one, asking for help, for food, for protection. Before long, the settlement was overrun by the very problems of the modern world that they’d tried to escape.

There are indigenous tribes of people in the area, but Makepeace knows of no other existing communities. One day, however, an airplane flies overhead and crashes, sending the sheriff off into new lands in the hope of finding others who’ve also survived. We travel along on this cold, lonely journey, getting glimpses along the way of what could have been, had only societies thought longer-term and made better decisions.

We find the world described here by Theroux a hostile place, where little humanity remains in the people still there, and where they’re ultimately held accountable for their actions. A finalist for the National Book Award, Far North, because of its dark subject matter, isn’t exactly a light-hearted read, but it is a compelling one.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/07/bookbiz-a-unique-chilling-vision-of-the-post-apocalyptic-world/)

Books: On Station Eleven

If I were to tell you that a book about the end of the world (as we know it) could somehow leave you optimistic and encouraged, I doubt you’d believe me. But the incredible novel Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, would prove me right, despite its often harrowing twists and turns.

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A finalist for this year’s National Book Award, Station Eleven takes what has come to be a standard apocalyptic trope (world ends, people flee, all hope’s lost, everything’s bleak) and turns it upside down. True, in Mandel’s imaginary world (which, incidentally, does not feel too far off from our own current world) a fast-moving flu wipes out an enormous percentage of the earth’s population and people do indeed flee, into seemingly hopeless, bleak times.

But the similarity to other books of this kind ends there, thanks to her brilliant character development, intricate plot, and the overall feeling of the story. Several characters’ lives unfold before us, as time jumps back and forth, and we learn about them both before and after the pandemic. Included in this number is a huge Hollywood star, a photographer-turned-paramedic, a Shakespearean stage actor, and the members of what’s known here as the Traveling Symphony.

After the collapse of civilization, with people spread out into small groups and communities, the musicians and actors in the Traveling Symphony go from place to place to perform concerts and Shakespearean plays. In a time when most people are struggling to just merely survive, the Symphony’s belief in the importance of preserving beauty and art is admirable – and often risky. The members want to give their fellow human beings who made it through the worst of it, as they did, a reason to remember what was beautiful and meaningful about the world before the pandemic.

Mandel writes with such precision and care, and her book is paced perfectly, so that you’re compelled to just keep reading, to keep finding out what happens to these characters you grow to care about so much. She has you rooting for them, and more than that, rooting for art and literature and culture, and hoping that maybe those things would actually endure in similar circumstances.

Whereas some other apocalyptic stories can seem so spare and so dark, Mandel gives this book rich details and a lifelike feeling. Of course, her observations of what the end of the world would be like are, naturally, unsettling and upsetting. They have to be. But that’s not the end of it here. She gives us so much more than that, in this beautiful and ultimately hopeful book.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/12/24/louanne-lofton-new-twist-dystopian-fiction/)